Sterile Corn and Hormonal Cows

Better eating through chemistry opens the possibility of disaster and world-wide famine

Let me first say that I love my Food City. I am constantly amazed at the productivity of the American farmer, and one of the great unheralded achievements in American business is the rise of the supermarkets which put a wide variety of fresh produce, fresh meat and a myriad of products from the mundane to the exotic at our fingertips.

This is especially appreciated by those of us who grew up in rural areas years ago and at the mercy of the fabled "country store." The most exotic thing there might be a tin of sardines. Or an overripe banana.

We love Farmer's Markets too, may they ever grow and prosper. But given the demands of our population, the food chain to our local supermarkets remains vital to our well-being.

But as much as we love farmers, fresh food, and convenience, there are some things out there in agriculture that are worrisome. We need to pay attention, because our food supply is regulated largely by big farm-state congressmen and senators and most of these people are in the pocket of large agribusiness interests that fund their campaigns. And the accursed Iowa caucus that exerts too much influence on the farm policy of anyone running for president.

—I commend to you a piece in the News Sentinel on Saturday by James Kennedy about the dangers of corn genetically modified to create an insecticide. What I find worrisome is the next generation of Monsanto's better profits through chemistry. For some time they have produced insect-resistant corn and have forbidden farmers from using some of this year's corn crop as seed corn for next year. You have to go back and buy new seed corn from Monsanto each year. They have now genetically modified corn that, once planted, produces corn that is sterile. In other words, if a farmer escapes Monsanto's lawyers and plants this year's corn, next year it will not reproduce.

You learned about cross pollination in junior high. Do we know what will happen should this new genetic strain get out into the ecosystem? But there is an even worse possibility. In Third World countries farmers have been saving seed corn for a thousand years. It provides agricultural diversity. If this genetically modified corn is provided to these farmers and its use increases across the world, we have the world's food supply at the mercy of an American chemical company. What happens should Monsanto go bankrupt? (Given the risk of lawsuits, it's possible.) We could have a world-wide famine. Agricultural diversity, with multiple sources for seed and plant species, decreases the risk of disaster.

—In the dairy industry, large companies have squeezed farm income to the point that dairy farms disappear at an alarming rate. It leaves large milking operations that have to use hormones to boost milk production, which reduces the life of the cow, but jumps her milk production 11 to 25 percent. There are 13 million fewer dairy cows in this country now than in 1950, yet the human population has increased steadily. But fewer and larger factory farms with selective breeding and the use of a hormone (BZT) has kept an oversupply of milk that drives the price down and bankrupts more farmers.

These hormones are banned in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Dean Foods conglomerate (owner of Mayfield Dairy) is currently defending a class-action lawsuit by farmers on one end and by consumers on the other end for interference in the market price of milk.

We need more dairy farms, with regular cows, eating grass, and producing less milk per cow but living longer. We also need to insure that dairy farmers can sell milk directly to the consumer. This would allow for smaller dairy farms that could be profitable (cutting out the price gouging middle man) and provide a check on price fixing. (Check out the Cruze Dairy in East Knox County as an example. Buy some milk and see what it's supposed to taste like.)

We need agribusiness, but we need to be sure we preserve alternatives with family farms, alternative markets, and we need some education and, yes, regulation on the hormones and genetic modifications of our food supply.